Men's hoops: seeding incentive

Badgers are among four Big Ten teams striving for third place

MADISON – The University of Wisconsin men's basketball team's "next game" is always a must win, players and coaches say.

When the Badgers tip-off with Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, that mantra will carry special weight.

Prior to Thursday's loss at No. 10 Michigan State, Wisconsin was tantalizingly close to the second place Spartans, but the Badgers now stand three games behind MSU with three left to play, all but mathematically eliminating UW from the Big Ten's runner-up spot.

After losing 77-64 in East Lansing, the 20th-ranked Badgers fell to 17-7 overall and 8-5 in the Big Ten, thrusting themselves into a scramble with Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio State for the No. 3 through No. 6 seeds in the upcoming conference tournament, with barely more than a week left in the regular season schedule.

"These last few games are going to be really important to this team and where we get placed in the Big Ten and the NCAAs," sophomore guard Kammron Taylor said.

Wisconsin holds its third-place destiny in its own hands but any slip along the way could send the Badgers spiraling down the conference standings. UW is currently tied for third place with Indiana (8-5 Big Ten, 13-11 overall) but would be the No. 4 seed if the season ended today, due to the Hoosiers' victory when the teams met in Bloomington, Ind., earlier this year.

Minnesota (8-6 Big Ten, 18-9 overall) is a half-game behind IU and UW, while Ohio State (7-6, 18-9) is a game back. The Badgers can sweep the Buckeyes with a win Sunday, having defeated OSU in Madison Jan. 11.

Though Indiana would still own the head-to-head tiebreaker, UW has a chance to even its season series with the Hoosiers when they visit Madison Tuesday night.

UW does not have that opportunity with Minnesota, which topped the Badgers in Minneapolis Feb. 5, in the teams' only meeting this season.

In addition to matchups with OSU and IU, the Badgers close the season with a home game versus Purdue next Saturday.

"You take them one at a time and try to knock them out one at a time," assistant coach Greg Gard said. "We're always trying to fight and win every single game we can and prepare the same way. The higher we can finish the better."

"We want to finish out very strong," sophomore forward Alando Tucker said. "We want to take a tough approach to it because it is going to be a major decider in what goes on later on."

Regardless of what happens Sunday, Wisconsin will likely still own a head-to-head tiebreaker over OSU, but would lose a tiebreaker with either UM or IU.

The tie breakers, however, will not come into play if the Badgers finish 3-0.

That will be easier said then done, particularly Sunday's game with the Buckeyes. OSU played Wisconsin tough in Madison, losing just 72-66, though the Badgers were playing without leading scorer Alando Tucker. But Wisconsin has not won a road game against a team with a winning record all season.

In that regard, a win Sunday would bolster Wisconsin's portfolio for the NCAA Tournament. With a loss, however, UW could fall into a tie for fifth place, pending Indiana's and Minnesota's results this weekend.

"We put particular emphasis on all the games that we have left," Taylor said. "You can't look at one game as being bigger than the other. These last two games are really important. We just have to take it a game at a time and take care of business."

While UW is looking to finish strong and maximize its seeding potential for the NCAAs, Minnesota and Indiana are fighting just to get into the tournament. Entering this week, the Gophers had an RPI of 53, while Indiana checked in at 83.

The Buckeyes could potentially build a strong case for the NCAA Tournament, but OSU banned itself from postseason play this year as punishment for an alleged recruiting violation under former coach Jim O'Brien. After trying to play spoiler against UW, Ohio State closes its season at Iowa Wednesday and home versus Illinois March 6.

Minnesota may be in the cat bird's seat. The Gophers close with 10th-place Purdue and last-place Penn State, who have a combined four conference wins. The games are on the road, however, including Purdue's celebration for Gene Keady's final home game as the Boilermakers' head coach Saturday.

Indiana's end-of-season schedule is the most daunting of the quartet. IU hosts Michigan State Sunday before traveling to Wisconsin. The Hoosiers, however, close with seventh-place Northwestern at home.

The schedule was kind to Indiana in another respect: the Hoosiers only have Illinois and Michigan State on their schedule once each this season. In addition to likely avoiding a loss or two, IU owns the head-to-head tie breaker over Ohio State, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Hoosiers split with OSU and UM, but the Big Ten's second tie breaker is record against the league's first-place team, then on down the line until an advantage appears.

Every Big Ten team has lost to Illinois but according to conference rules, IU's 0-1 is better than OSU's and UW's 0-2. Minnesota has also played Illinois only once, but had the misfortune of losing to MSU twice. So if the Hoosiers lose to the Spartans Sunday, they would still own a head-to-head tiebreaker edge over Minnesota.

The Gophers, incidentally, have the best record in games within the quartet at 4-1, having split their season series with Indiana, while going 3-0 against Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Butch will travel

Brian Butch, sidelined with a case of mononucleosis, will travel with the Badgers when they head to Columbus this weekend but will not play against the Buckeyes, an athletics communications representative said Friday.

Butch, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman forward, did not travel with the team to East Lansing for Thursday's game but UW head coach Bo Ryan said this weekend's change was not the result of an improvement in health. Rather, it is that Butch will not miss classes by traveling with the Badgers Saturday and Sunday.

As he has done for the past week, Butch rode a stationary bike during practice Friday evening. He also took part in the team's shooting drills.

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